Feminist Architecture: From A to Z


Jane Rendell



Audre Lorde:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Audre Lorde wrote these words in 1984, as a response to a Humanities conference at New York University Institute where she and one other black woman had been asked to participate at the ‘last hour’.



The interior and the domestic have been perhaps the most thoroughly explored of feminist architecture’s ‘other spaces’ as they have both been directly associated with the private sphere, and as such subordinated to the public city, in both patriarchal and capitalist cultures within the discourse of modernity. Research on the interior has had a special resonance for women, coming out of interior design or interior architecture, professional and academic disciplines, which have long been marginalized as women’s work in relation to architecture. Mark Taylor and Julieanna Preston’s book Intimus celebrates the difference of interiors from architecture, and Preston’s own work as an architect-artist often involves transforming standard modularised building materials to reveal their unique and often sensual interiors, as well as creating installations from unruly, tactile materials, such as Bale (2011).


Critical Spatial Practice (Feminist):

The past decade has seen a flourishing of activity in feminism and architecture, driven by interdisciplinary concerns, which have re-located architecture in the expanded field of spatial practices. The rise in practice-led research as well as the influence of the writings of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau on spatial practice has produced an understanding of practice as a process which occurs not only through the design of buildings but also through activities of use, occupation and experience as well as writing and imaging. It is possible to draw connections between de Certeau’s ‘strategies’ and Lefebvre’s ‘representations of space’, on the one hand, and de Certeau’s ‘tactics’ and Lefebvre’s ‘spaces of representation’, on the other, and suggest a distinction between those practices or strategies that operate to maintain and reinforce existing social and spatial orders, and those practices or tactics that seek to critique and question them. I favour such a distinction and have introduced ‘critical spatial practice’ as a term that emphasises the ‘critical’ as a reflective and emancipatory activity emanating from the approach to critical theory taken by the Frankfurt School. This has also involved rethinking the role of theory, not to prove a hypothesis nor prescribe a particular methodology or solution to a problem, but rather as a mode of practice in its own right. If ‘critical spatial practice’ refers to self-reflective artistic and architectural practices which seek to question and transform the social conditions of the sites into which they intervene, as well as their own disciplinary procedures, what are the particular aspects that a feminist approach to critical spatial practice highlights?



On the 10th of March 2015, a student threw excrement at the statute of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Just one month later, the Rhodes Must Fall movement succeeded, and the statue came down. This action was an important symbolic rejection of the British imperialist and avowed white supremacist who some have called the ‘architect of apartheid.’ The action galvanised a dialogue in South Africa concerning race and oppression and it was watched around the world and reminded us in the UK that we are still behaving as a colonising power, at least if our architectural history curricula in universities are taken as evidence. We might be addressing our history of colonisation through ‘postcolonial’ seminars, but we need to take a decolonising approach. Decolonisation pushes for the undoing of colonialism and the colonial empires established prior to World War I throughout the world. However, decolonisation is not only the removal of dominating non-indigenous forces from the spaces and institutions of the colonised, it is also a process mental process which seeks to ‘decolonise the mind’ from the coloniser's ideas that made the colonised seem inferior.



An important and timely volume, Altering Practices, edited by Doina Petrescu and published in 2007, focused the debate in feminism and architecture around the ‘poetics and politics of the feminine’. In taking account of the feminine, as well as the feminist, the book acknowledges the role of aesthetics as well as ethics, form as well as function, in architecture. The volume originates in a conference that was held between L’École d’Architecture Paris Villemin and L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1999 in Paris, under the title of Alterities. The book focuses on the other, and on an understanding of practices which aim to change, transform or alter. The notion of practicing ‘otherwise’ or ‘otherhow’ relates to the political and poetic perspective informed by feminism put forward by Doina Petrescu and manifest in the work of her practice with Constanin Petcou and others, as Atelier architecture d’autogérée (aaa) or studio for self-managed architecture. This participatory collaborative platform has been groundbreaking in engaging with ecological issues through projects such as ECObox and R-URBAN. And in my view, ‘what it takes to make a relationship to make a thing’, a phrase articulated by muf (see below), becomes in the work of aaa ‘what it takes to make a thing to make a relationship’, that the making of architecture could be a subterfuge for the re-making of subjects.


Feminist Killjoy:

Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s College London in 2016, due to alleged issues of sexual harassment at the university she had not had the support to adequately tackle, drew the attention of feminists around the world. Her book Living a Feminist Life, a development of her influential blog, feministkilljoys, has been a rigorous reminder that all is not well in the establishment, and that the work of feminists in opposing across sexual, racial and class discrimination is very far from over. Through the figure of the feminist killjoy her book blends theory with her own story, and offers tools and a manifesto for other feminists seeking to challenge forms of oppression.



Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything from 2015  is a documentary film directed by Avi Lewis, and a companion piece to her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein charts a whole series of activist environmental projects from across the globe, many of which involve women leading the fight against extractivism. Crystal is a young indigenous Beaver Lake Cree Nation leader in Athabasca oil sands country who is fighting in Alberta, Canada for access to a restricted military base. Melachrini is a housewife opposed to mining and drilling projects by Canadian corporation Eldorado Gold, set against the backdrop of Greece in crisis. And Jyothi is a matriarch fighting a proposed coal-fired power plant that will destroy a wetland in Andhra Pradesh, India. On the 11th July 2013, a team of young women from Greenpeace climbed to the top of London’s Shard to protest Shell’s drilling of the arctic. What could be more of a feminist symbol then these brave female climbers scaling the glass skin of this neoliberal city’s tallest tower?



Some of the key people resisting the demolition of social housing in London are also young women: the E15 Mums who occupied boarded up flats on the Carpenters Estate in protest at the planned destruction of their homes, or the women at New Era who fought off the rent hikes introduced by their private landlord, and most recently the courageous women leaseholders from the Aylesbury Estate who have led the resistance to the compulsory purchase order of the flats they worked hard to buy as council tenants.



In 1974 The Combahee River Collective produced a feminist theory of racial difference, which involved developing thematics common to the work of many black women writers, such as a focus on the strength of black women as opposed to their more commonly perceived status as victims, the relation of everyday experience to theoretical concepts, and the positive aspects of relationships between women. Fifteen years later, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw of critical race theory introduced the term ‘intersectionality theory’, which argues that the experience of being a black woman must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other, of being black and of being a woman. Her work studies how intersecting social identities, particularly minority identities, relate to systems and structures of oppression, domination, or discrimination.


(Big) Jugs:

In the 1990s, the drawn and written projects of American architect and critic Jennifer Bloomer aimed to reveal the insufficiency of logical and rational structures such as spoken language to explain the world, and instead brought into operation the irrational and subversive elements in written texts – as the workings of the feminine. Drawing parallels between the creation of a building, assumed to be a clean act of control and precision, and the mess of childbirth, Bloomer questioned the gender of creativity. Through her dirty drawings and her incorporation of parts of the female anatomy – breasts, milk, fluids, blood, hatching, udders – into architecture, Bloomer generated a critique of the sterility of the architectural drawing process. The feminine in her work was to be found in the so-called slippage of words, for example, the term ‘big jugs’ placed within an architectural context suggested many things, including large breasts, but also the role of the feminine and female body as a container or empty signifier used to represent patriarchal ideologies. Bloomer’s work demonstrated that the feminine can be a radical element in architectural practice. 


The work of feminist architects at KTH in Stockholm, such as Katarina Bonnevier, Brady Burroughs, Catharina Gabrielsson, Katja Grillner, Rolf Hughes, Helena Mattsson, Karin Reisinger, Helen Runting, Meike Schalk, and Malin Zimm, has been especially important in developing feminist architecture practices through their solo work but also the collaborative pedagogical endeavor, FATALE, a project located in the architecture school that involved some of them. Their work has focused on activism and pedagogy –  operating through different writing modes and forms of performative and participatory practice in art, architecture and public space. On international women’s day this year, feminists at the Bartlett will celebrate with them the publication of a whole range of new books that document the work that this inspiring group of feminists have produced, curated and supported. The feminist critiques of the academy offered by FATALE have been accompanied by publications, edited by Harriet Harris, Ruth Morrow, James Soane and James Benedict Brown in the UK, and Katia Frey, Eliana Perotti and Torsten Lange in Zurich, whose tone is activist as well as academic, and that seek to challenge head-on discrimination in the profession and in education.


Liz Diller:

While the first feminist architectural history publication is possibly Doris Cole’s From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture, in 1973, followed by important work by Dolores Hayden, Gwendolyn Wright and others, the 1990s saw discussions concerning the relationship between gender and space gain theoretical strength in the academy along with the publication of a whole range of books on architecture and its relation to sex, sexuality, gender and feminism, most famously Beatriz Colomina’s Sexuality and Space, but also the UK publications Gender, Space, Architecture (which brought together a range of historical and interdisciplinary texts, edited by myself, Barbara Penner and Iain Borden) and Francesa Hughes’ The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice. In working across the boundary between theory and practice, and between architecture and other disciplines, the 1990s also saw theoretically informed significant and influential feminist projects by conceptual practitioners such as Bloomer and Liz Diller. Works like Diller’s Bad Press (1993) offered a critique of the disciplinary boundaries constructed between domestic life and professional architectural practice.



In Hanley, in 1998, muf won an open competition set up by Stoke City Council with the Public Art Commissioning Agency. muf’s brief was to make a lifting barrier to prevent illegal traffic entering Hanley town centre as part of a larger urban regeneration project. But in dialogue with the council planner at an initial stage of the project, the brief was opened out to reveal how ‘art can contribute to a safer, more social environment’. This was an important early project which challenged the scope of the brief and definitions of architecture and planning. As an architectural practice, muf has gone on to make influential and inspirational contributions to feminist architecture over the past twenty years. In the early years muf was frequently criticised in mainstream architectural media for not producing any ‘architecture’, but this was because the discourse was unable to recognize architecture as the production of anything other than stand-alone-object-buildings. muf’s very mode of operation continues to evolve and invent new critiques of architectural design methodologies that emphasise form and object-making. Their working method highlights the importance of exchange across art and architecture, the participation of users in the design process and the importance of collaborating with other producers. For muf, the architectural design process is not an activity that leads to the making of a product, but rather the location of the work itself, and each project should raise the question they’ve articulated: ‘what does it take to make a relationship to make a thing?’ In architecture, to position a building as a ‘methodology’ rather than as an end result is still a radical proposition.


Nomadic Subjects:

The 1990s saw a rise in the relevance and pertinence of identity politics focusing on class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Emerging through, and at times diverging from, this discourse, has been the work of post-structuralist feminists, which has been particularly important for architecture in offering ways of thinking about position, situation and location. In this work new ways of knowing and being have been discussed in spatial terms, developing conceptual and critical tools such as ‘situated knowledge’ and ‘standpoint theory’ to examine the inter-relations between location, identity and knowledge. The poetic work of African American and Chicana writers, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks, has been groundbreaking in bringing together politics and lived experience, as has the philosophical thinking of Rosi Braidotti, whose figure of the ‘nomadic subject’ describes not only a spatial state of movement, but also an epistemological condition, a kind of knowingness (or unknowingness) that refuses fixity.



Feminist understandings of ‘materiality’ or matter show how material is not only the social and economic context for architecture but also an active ingredient in the processes of making architecture. The important work of feminist material philosophers, like Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers and Karen Barad, has provided a foundation for challenging the rise of OOO – or object-orientated ontology – for its gender blindness. An important new generation of thinkers like Claudia Dutson, Helene Frichot, Stephen Loo, Peg Rawes, Undine Sellbach and Katie Lloyd Thomas consider matter from an ecological perspective where humans are interconnected with animals, insects and things, and rethink the treatment of material processes in such architectural traditions as the specification. Feminist architects have also invented new kinds of details that maximise the environmental potential of architectural materials, most famously, Sarah Wigglesworth Architecture in the Straw Bale House (2001) at 9 Stock Orchard Street, and Ruth Morrow in her use of textiles in making concrete.



In the 1970s and 1980s there were many design build collectives which operated as critical alternatives to the capitalist system of building production, and the London-based feminist architectural cooperative Matrix was part of this tradition at its outset. The early 1990s saw the rise of various practices, such as muf, but also FAT and Fluid, which highlighted their collaborative intent by choosing non-proper nouns as names to challenge the usual single architectural signature of authorship. Currently there is a flowering of feminist collective practices in architecture and urbanism, some focused on building and planning, such as Atelier d’architecture autogérée; some more artistic, performative and activist, such as Taking Place and Mycket; and others focused on changing sexist forms of pedagogy and professional practice, like FATALE, Architexx and Parlour. Parlour’s work on gender equity in the profession is theoretically informed, but most importantly is a practical initiative for supporting women in the profession, providing a whole range of innovative helpful tools, from the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practices to Marion’s List.



stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two spirit, androgynous, asexual and allies. This movement recognises the full spectrum of diversities of gendered and sexed identities and has been the most transformative change to feminism in recent years, challenging binary thinking and practice at all levels.



Lesley Lokko addressed issues of black identity decades ago in her edited book White Papers, Black Marks: Architecture, Race, Culture, which held fast to a strong sense of desire for political change while also recognizing the often contingent and situated conditions of race and identity . This book is cleverly subdivided into sections by scale: ‘1: 125,000 – Urban Angles’, ‘1: 1250- Displacement/Diaspora’, ‘1:1 – One on One’, showing how racial discriminations and resistances to oppression take place from the macro to the micro, from strategic planning and policy making to architectural details and small-scale art projects. Scale can also describe a differential mapping of subjectivity, from the huge distances covered by movements of migration created through colonialisation and subsequent diasporic displacements, to the close-up proximity of more intimate relationships. Today Lokko is an important architectural educator at the forefront of debates on decolonising the curriculum.



In visual and spatial culture, feminists have drawn extensively on psychoanalytic theory to further understand relationships between the spatial politics of internal psychical figures and external cultural geographies. The field of psychoanalysis explores these various thresholds and boundaries between private and public, inner and outer, subject and object, personal and social in terms of a complex understanding of the relationship between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ space. The work of Elizabeth Grosz and Steve Pile has been particularly influential in this area, as have the writings of key Australian feminist philosophers, such as Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, whose thinking has revealed, from a feminist perspective, the spatial qualities of mainstream philosophy. The significance of current interest in the psyche might be understood then in terms of the position it occupies as the site of convergence between space and subjectivity, place and psyche, and the importance of feminist architecture in remaking subject positions.



Understandings of positioned knowledge from a range of post-structuralist feminists, such as Seyla Benhabib, Rosalyn Diprose, Jane Flax, Moira Gatens, Sandra Harding, Elspeth Probyn, Linda Nicholson and Andrea Nye, have made it clear that subjectivities are contingent and situated, and constructed in response to particular times and places. Donna Haraway’s influential essay from the 1980s, ‘Situated Knowledge’, has really come into its own in recent years. Her argument – that objectivity is partial and constructed – has helped feminism avoid being seen to reject objectivity in favour of subjectivity, and instead facilitated powerful critiques of status quo positions. Her most recent book, Staying with the Trouble, reconceptualises the Anthropocene as the Chthulucene, as an epoch in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices. For Haraway, the Chthulucene requires what she calls sym-poiesis or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis or self-making.



The philosophy of deconstruction developed by Jacques Derrida provided a critique of binary thinking, which was put to work by feminists in the 1990s, to showing how the hierarchical relationship often assigned to two terms in a pair is not natural or pre-given but a social construction. Feminist theorist Diane Elam observed that Derrida’s understanding of ‘undecideability’ offered feminism more than an analytic tool, but also a political potential. And through the 1990s, feminist critique was particularly effective in mobilising the possibilities of Derridean deconstruction in architecture, to produce a thorough and ongoing critique of a number of binary oppositions, most specifically the ‘separate spheres’. Feminist work has drawn attention to the spaces both marginalized within gendered binaries in mainstream architectural discourse such as the domestic and the interior, as well as those which exceed binary distinctions – margins, the between, the everyday, the heterotopic and the abject.



Conditions of visibility have been very much part of feminist debate over the past decades, in particular the ways in which the vital contribution of feminist forbears have often been obscured. Feminist architectural historian Karen Burns has noted very recently that despite the large number of feminist publications in the 1990s, this was also the decade that saw the absence of feminist texts in major architectural theory anthologies and that the ‘feminine’ was often included in such anthologies through invited contributions authored by men. Most provocatively Burns makes the excellent point that feminist architectural discourse and practice has, in various instances, in particular the discussions between Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman, been conducted by men through the bodies of women – through choric space. For quite some time in the mid-2000s the topic of feminism in architecture was less than visible, and many of the ideas advanced through feminism were taken up by other discourses. The danger is that, unless the references to feminism are made clear, we might ‘unwrite’ architecture’s feminist genealogy. This then poses questions about acknowledgement, and raises the dangers of invisibility and of appropriation, to quote the Guerilla Girls, of ‘seeing your ideas live on in others’. This is why it has been good to see a rise in studies by feminists of citational practice, and the work of Ramia Mazé and others examine exactly how practices of citation in the academy have worked to exclude women’s contribution to the field.



While first wave feminism was focused on achieving equality, second wave feminism was characterised in many ways by a politics of difference. The slogan ‘the personal is political’ highlighted the need for public politics to engage with issues of private life – for the spaces between subjects in the setting of home and family to be understood as cultural formations – formed by and forming culture – and thus to be taken seriously by built environment professionals. This was work that was developed by radical feminists in the 1970s either by considering the important links between women and home – such as Womanhouse, 1971-2, feminist art programme at CalArts, with artists Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro and others; or by engaging with the difficulties women encountered in the public realm, such as mothers with young children traversing badly designed cityscapes. The feminist architectural cooperative MATRIX and the Women’s Design Service addressed their work in the 1990s towards improving the conditions of women in the construction industry and also as users and clients. And in 2016, WAMT (Women in the Manual Trades) who had been supporting tradeswomen for over 40 years relaunched as Women on the Tools.



Sexism back on the agenda – successive Architects' Journal studies in the UK have revealed that unacceptable levels of harassment exist in the architectural profession and the construction industry. And the results of the US Equity in Architecture Surveys from 2016 showed that ‘underrepresented groups tended to face greater challenges relative to ‘job-person fit’. And it is surely only time until the #metoo finds its way into architecture and the building industry. The AJ’s initiatives to promote women in architecture, such as woman and emerging woman architect of the year, are certainly helping to promote women’s work in architecture, but the fact that this is still needed in the 21st century is deeply troubling. Lori Brown’s key interventions into media sites with ArchiteXX’s wikibomb have reignited the feminist project of the 1970s – herstory – to write women back into architectural history. And this initiative is not alone. There are sister projects around the world, and those that I have heard from recently include: Berlin, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Moscow, Seville, Sheffield, Valencia, and Zurich, where challenges are being made to the lack of female representation in university curriculum and professional judging panels, and where research is being conducted that writes women back into history. See for example, Mary Pepchinski and Mariann Simon’s Ideological Equals: Women Architects in Socialist Europe. 1945-1989 (2016); Mary Pepchinski, Christina Budde, Wolfgang Voigt, and Peter Cachola Schmal’s Frau Architekt: Over 100 years of Women in Architecture (2017) and Lynne Walker and Elizabeth Darling’s AA Women in Architecture 1917-2017 (2017). While important initiatives have been set up to award women architects recognition for their work, such as the arcVision Women and Architecture Prize, which has been won by South American architects like Tatiana Bilbao and Carla Juaçaba, and whose all-woman jury includes influential figures from across the globe.



Common to the development of all architectural practices attentive to gender difference is a commitment to diversity and the production of work which bridges theory, history and design. While societies continue to expect that women bear children, and while women still bear the responsibility of being the primary child-carers, female architects will face problems of negotiating the twin demands of home and work and of facing continuing discrimination in the architectural profession and education. But as bell hooks points out so eloquently, ‘it is our capacity to imagine that lets us move beyond boundaries’. hooks’ writing looks at the role of space, both real and metaphorical, in shaping us as human beings in terms of lived experience and aspiration. When hooks explores the margin/centre binary in describing the politics and spaces of location in her book Yearning, she thinks of how these two positions might be occupied simultaneously. For hooks, theory is emancipatory, it allows the margin to be considered in a different way, as a positive space, not only of domination but also resistance, of oppression and radical possibility.



The death of the influential Iraqi woman architect, Zaha Hadid, in 2016, prompted many of the great and good in the architectural profession to acknowledge her creativity and achievements, when in life, she had struggled especially in her early career to achieve recognition. The manner of the acknowledgements served a culture in architecture which celebrates the one-off genius. The impetus was to bolster the canon, inviting those who had been kept out in, rather than prompting conversations about the lack of media coverage of women architects in general, or more importantly the fact that many women architects do not seek stardom, but recognition and equity.



This is a previously unpublished text.

With thanks to Jane Rendell.




A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN by Virginia Woolf